With immigration remaining a sizzling political issue, and the Rio Grande Valley being on the front line of border-security matters, Texas onion growers and shippers say they are well aware of the sensitive nature of finding workers to harvest their crop.

This year is no exception.

Some years, labor is a tough sell, they say. This year, things have eased, thanks in part to the current recession, said John McClung, manager of the South Texas Onion Committee in Mission.

“It’s not as tight as it was a couple of years ago because of the economy,” he said. “The economy has driven people who have gotten out of the fields back into them.”

Immigration reform needed

McClung acknowledges that “a substantial part of our field labor is illegal.”

They’re also long-timers, he said.

“They’re not people who move freely across the border day after day, because that is increasingly difficult to do,” he said. “The undocumented workers in the field now have been here for years and years and are part of the 20 million that are underground.”

The south Texas produce industry needs comprehensive immigration reform as much now than ever, McClung said.

The problem, he said, is finding a solution that strikes a proper balance between feeding the labor pool and protecting the border.

Support for AgJobs

The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, or AgJobs, has the support of the south Texas industry, McClung said. However, he acknowledged that the measure doesn’t address all concerns.

“The problem with AgJobs is it addresses the issue of the workforce, but it does not address border security or the so-called amnesty issue,” he said.

“One option the Congress is looking at is simply something like AgJobs, which takes care of one of the three issues, but fails to deal with the others — border security and what to do with those who are here illegally.”

The issue of border security has been a major obstacle to immigration reform, McClung said.

“That’s the free flow across the U.S. and the Canadian borders,” he said. “On the Mexican border, if you look at the numbers coming out of California and Texas and Arizona, the number of pickups is way down. It demonstrates quite clearly that the steps that have been taken to date are quite effective.”

The key to resolving the immigration issue is to keep politics out of it, McClung said.

“We are concerned about what the federal government does about holding employers responsible until you have a very good effective system for determining if a potential employee is illegal,” he said. “That’s the problem with the central ID systems. Nobody that I work for wants anything other than secure borders. You have to have secure borders, but you want to do it as intelligently and as cost-effectively as possible.”

Ample labor

Meanwhile, Texas’ onion growers and shippers say there will be plenty of workers available for the upcoming onion deal — perhaps mainly a result of the slogging economy.

“We’re in great shape for labor,” said David DeBerry, president of David K Deberry Inc., Edinburg. “Last year and this year both we’re turning people away every day.

Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc. reports a similar situation.

“We’re OK,” said Tracy Fowler, general manager of the firm’s potato and onion departments. “We have decent crews each year, but our crews are pretty loyal. That’s a topic in all our sheds, but we seem like we’re OK in Texas.”

The economy is an unmistakable factor, said Curtis DeBerry, owner of Progreso Produce, Boerne, Texas.

“We didn’t have any labor issues last year, and I foresee the same today,” he said. “It seems it’s decreased a little. As the economy has spun down, it seems there are more people looking for work There has been enough people to get the crop harvested and to market in a smooth and timely manner.”

The workers are not only available, but they’re also good at what they do, said Don Ed Holmes, owner of the Weslaco, Texas-based Onion House.

“That’s one thing here in the valley — we’ve been very blessed with labor,” he said. “A lot of people we get come from this area. People down in this area have a really good ag background and have a great work ethic. We’re very fortunate we have big labor pool here in the Rio Grande Valley.”

Tommy Whitlock, onion salesman for Pharr, Texas-based Grasmick South LLC, concurred.

“Labor out of South Texas is no problem,” he said. “In fact, we had more people looking for work than we’ve had in past years. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem this year. We have more people calling this year already.”

Labor may be more expensive this year, though, said Bill Burns, owner of Burns Farms Inc., McAllen, Texas.

“I expect there to be plenty of labor but at a higher price,” he said. “I don’t think there will be a shortage. We’d expect it to be higher-priced, although I couldn’t put a figure on it — certainly more than it has been the last few years.”

But, Burns said, his company does have one advantage.

“We can harvest onions with machines on at least half of our acreage,” he said. “Over the last three years, we’ve pretty well done that. It can’t be done in most of the valley, because most of the valley doesn’t have soil that allows that. But we can do it. We’re working towards that on our farm.”